Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2013 Tony Awards Predictions: Best Direction of a Musical

Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winners will be in orange.

BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

Matilda3

1. Matthew Warchus
MATILDA THE MUSICAL

2. Jerry Mitchell
KINKY BOOTS

3. Diane Paulus
PIPPIN

4. Scott Ellis
THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD

It could’ve played faster and zanier, especially in that first act, but come Act II and all that audience participation, the first Broadway revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood became a rollicking good time. Six-time nominee (never a winner) Scott Ellis deftly juggled a cast of twenty and as many musical numbers, not to mention that tricky play-within-a-play component that doubles the cast of characters. Ellis’s staging crystalized the story lines and savored the silly comedy, but his is the only production that closed months ago, and the competition is fierce.

Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell keeps Kinky Boots moving at super-snappy pace with the assistance of a David Rockwell’s multi-tiered revolving set and a talented cast that doesn’t need much tending. It’s a tight production, and Mitchell manages to keep the inherent sentimentality in check (except for that maudlin Act II moment between Simon and his father). This marks Mitchell’s eighth nomination — he’s won once for choreography for La Cage in 2005 — but it will not be his first directing win.

Diane Paulus cleverly stages Pippin as a circus show, revealing innumerable tricks up her directorial sleeve by juggling astonishing aerial acrobatic feats by Montreal-based troupe Les 7 doigts de la main, the Fosse-indebted footwork of choreographer Chet Walker and a game — and often courageous — cast of twenty-plus. The result is a dazzling visual feast, but also an overwhelming one. At times there is so much happening on stage, that your eye can’t keep up; frantically scanning for the most impressive feat, nearly always performed by an acrobat, you miss the actual show. Admittedly, it’s not a great one, and so Paulus’s aggressive, overstimulating staging is a welcome distraction from a lot of mediocre songs and cheesy jokes. (When she just lets the show be, such as in Pippin and Catherine’s duet “Love Song,” it’s apparent just how necessary all the visual tricks are. Zzzz.) As enjoyable as all the spectacle is, it also doesn’t shed any new light on the war-time fable about a boy searching for his “Corner of the Sky.” Is this good direction? I’m not convinced, but it looks like voters will be: Paulus won the Drama Desk for her efforts, and will likely receive her first Tony come Sunday.

If you want clever visual spectacle that actually serves character and plot, look to Matthew Warchus who offers exactly that in Matilda The Musical. Directing with an almost ADD-like enthusiasm, Warchus transforms the stage — and much of the auditorium — into a playground of which an amazing group of kid-actors reigns. Wondrous design meets ingenious staging in moments like the “School Song” when the older students warn the first-timers what they’re in for. Climbing the steel rungs of the towering, imposing gate to Crunchem Hall, they ingeniously insert lettered tiles into its rectangular gaps, emphasizing the consonants and vowels of the lyrics with each ominous vocal punch. It’s one startling example of dozens in which Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling, with his thrusting movements of frustration, masterfully combine the wild imaginations and towering fears of childhood in a physicalization of Roald Dahl’s oft-sadistic, unusually dark and rarely sweet vision. It’s the sixth nomination for Warchus, who won for God of Carnage in 2009, and while Paulus is primed for the win, he’s not trailing far behind with just as many plaudits. Here’s hoping for a spoiler.

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